Comic Conversations and Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
Kelli Marshall / DePaul University

coffee

Jerry Seinfeld’s Web Series

I’ve two goals here: first, to explain the rise of a genre cycle I’ve dubbed comic conversations, and second, to submit that one of the most recent products of this cycle, Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, distinguishes itself from similar interview shows—and arguably raises the bar—because of its constant mobility, focus on civility, and high production values.

Over the last five years, an unusual genre cycle has emerged: comic conversations. Shows in which comedians interview or randomly talk to other comedians usually for the pleasure of an audience have erupted both online and on television. Perhaps the three most successful are WTF with Marc Maron, a podcast which currently averages 2.75 million downloads per month; The Adam Carolla Podcast, which recently broke the world record for most downloaded podcasts ever; and The Ricky Gervais Show (with comics Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, and Karl Pilkington), a podcast that held the aforementioned Guinness World Record until Carolla broke it in 2011.

Comic conversations may also be found weekly on these podcasts: Never Not Funny (with Jimmy Pardo and Matt Belknap), Doug Loves Movies (with Doug Benson), Comedy and Everything Else (with Jimmy Dore and Stefane Zambrano), Comedy Bang Bang (with Scott Ackerman and Reggie Watts), The Nerdist (with Chris Hardwicke), and How Was Your Week with Julie Klausner? (significantly the only woman in the bunch).

This new genre cycle isn’t restricted to iTunes though. Cable television and digital networks have embraced the comic conversation as well. Just last year, for example, we saw the release of IFC’s Comedy Bang Bang, a spinoff of the above-mentioned podcast; HBO’s Talking Funny, a roundtable discussion featuring Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Louis CK; and Showtime’s Inside Comedy, a series in which long-time Canadian comic David Steinberg talks with Ellen Degeneres, Don Rickles, Martin Short, and Sarah Silverman among others.

There are also Showtime’s The Green Room with Paul Provenza in which panels of comedians discuss their craft (but mostly try to one-up each other), and Modern Comedian, a documentary web series shot, edited, and produced by Scott Moran and distributed on YouTube by PBS Digital Studios. Finally, earlier this summer, I was introduced to the web series In Bed with Joan, in which Joan Rivers invites comedians into “her bed” for a 20-30-minute conversation.

description of image

Various Comic Conversations

Comic Conversations: Why So Popular?

So why is this current wave of comic conversations so popular? I’ll offer three reasons. First, the shows are cheap to make, especially the podcasts. Aside from a couple of chairs and a relatively quiet space, one needs only a microphone, mixer, and recording software, the latter of which comes with most computers. Moreover, some podcast hosting packages are available for a mere $5.00 a month.

A second reason comic conversations may be so widespread at present is that self-distribution is possible via blogs, websites, RSS feeds, iTunes, and the like. Some have even compared podcasts to television in the 1940s in that it’s “entering uncharted territory but has the potential to rival terrestrial radio” (Halperin). Similarly, because comedians are able to circulate their own conversations, they are able “to take power away from the gatekeepers of culture and put it back in the hands of its creators,” The AV Club’s Nathan Rabin writes.

A final reason these comic conversations have grown in popularity is that comics presumably function as “the punk rockers of today.” In other words, according to comedian Mike Birbiglia and comedian-turned-director Judd Apatow, comics are “saying things nobody really wants to hear but doing it in a way that’s engaging enough to hook you.” (I understand what Apatow and Birbiglia are trying to say, but I’m not sure this differs from what Don Rickles, Lenny Bruce, and/or Richard Pryor have done or did for years.) Still, podcasts and premium cable channels necessitate little censorship; so cursing, uncomfortable banter, and political incorrectness frequently fly through the airwaves.

Along the same lines, many comedians’ personal lives, often destructive, resemble that of “punk rockers,” which, like bear-baiting in the past and car wrecks in the present, creepily attract audiences. Marc Maron, for example, has battled addictions to alcohol, cocaine, and nicotine; he’s twice-divorced, was twice-cancelled by the radio network Air America, and has openly struggled with jealousy toward other comics, his old friend Louis CK in particular. All of this I’ve learned from listening to his podcasts. In sum, comic conversations are popular because most of them are cheap, easy to distribute, and (somewhat) free from censorship.

Maron

Marc Maron (right) interviewing in his garage.

Enter Jerry Seinfeld…

It was only a matter of time, then, that America’s most well known stand-up comedian would toss his hat into this growing ring. Last summer, Jerry Seinfeld quietly released Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, a weekly web series in which he and a fellow comic are documented driving around Los Angeles or New York, drinking coffee (or tea, in the case of Larry David), and “pouring over the excruciating minutia of every, single, daily event” as Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes would put it. Yes, as Larry David observes at the end of the series’ first episode, “Jerry, you have finally done a show about nothing.”

Distribution and Civility

What’s unique about Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, however, is that it defies virtually all of the potential reasons comic conversations have risen over the last five years. For example, it did not begin freely via iTunes, a blog, RSS feeds, and the like but is distributed via Crackle, a Sony Pictures Entertainment Company—significantly, the same company that owns and distributes syndicated episodes of the TV show Seinfeld.

As well, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee debunks the notion that comedians function as “the punk rockers of today.” There’s no vulgarity or offensive themes, and the few curse words uttered are bleeped so “you can watch comfortably if your kids are around,” Seinfeld tweets. Like Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up act and the TV show that bears his name, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is not interested in spectacle or shock-value but observational comedy: deliberating with Larry David, for example, about the warmth of a pancake, wearing briefs over the age of 60, and the contemplative nature of a cigar.

Mobility

Finally, Seinfeld’s web series almost certainly commands way more money and involvement than a podcast, a web series like Modern Comedian or In Bed with Joan, and, I’m guessing, even an 8-episode program like Showtime’s Inside Comedy in which two comedians ultimately just sit opposite one another in a nice room carrying on conversations about their craft. In short, virtually every other comic conversation out there is static: two people, two chairs, two microphones or cameras. On the other hand, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, as its title suggests, is mobile.

If not using one from Seinfeld’s collection, the web series borrows cars for each episode: the one Seinfeld drives, and then others that follow, precede, or drive alongside him for the exterior shots. Moreover, each car is handpicked to match the persona of the guest. For instance, Larry David gets a 1952 Volkswagen Beetle (“rich guys in a cheap car”), Ricky Gervais a 1967 Austin-Healey, Carl Reiner a 1960 Rolls Royce, and Michael Richards a beat-up 1962 Volkswagen bus.

What’s more, each car must be outfitted with tiny digital cameras and platforms to pick up the comic conversations taking place inside the vehicle. Finally, attentive viewers might notice the cameras and thus camera-operators that follow the comedians when they’re not driving as well as the cameras that must be positioned inside the coffee shops or diners before the two comics enter and then throughout the conversation. In short, much planning and several people are involved here.

Mobility (and cameras)

Mobility (and cameras)

Production Values

We might also note the web series’ production values, which arguably surpass those of other filmed comic conversations. I am aware that inserting nouns before the word porn has become a fad, glamorizing or spectacularizing the subject matter at hand, e.g., food porn, disaster porn, kitchen porn (Nancy Meyers’ movies). But that is how many have referred to Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee: as “car porn” or more derogatorily “rich man car porn,” to quote the team from Deadline.com.

For instance, each episode begins with extreme close-up shots of the featured car: a key in the ignition, a taillight, a hood, a side mirror, a speedometer, a bumper, etc. Then, after we’ve been introduced to the car visually, Seinfeld offers in voiceover a summary of its features: make, model, horsepower, etc. See, for example, the opening of the episode with Larry David. And even the beat-up car chosen for Michael Richards gets a glamorized story. (Fans also use the phrase coffee porn when describing the series.)

Conclusions

Whether it’s the cars, the coffee, or the shots of the two comedians’ talking, the production values of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee—the constant mobility, clarity of shots, editing, sound effects, jazzy nondiegetic music—do distinguish it from others in this growing genre cycle. Compare it to a show like IFC’s Comedy Bang Bang, for example, which sometimes looks as though it was made in the basement of the comedians’ parents, an updated Wayne’s World if you will.

The AV Club’s Steve Heisler is concerned that all the “messiness and humanity” unearthed in many of these comic conversations, podcasts in particular, will be lost if they become more streamlined and commercial. “There will soon be a point when we know too much about comedians to retain any of the magic that initially attracted us to the art form,” he writes.

I disagree, and I think we can use Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee as an example here. With its distribution through a digital Sony Entertainment Pictures Company as well as its embracement of civility and high production values, it does seem more “streamlined and commercial” than most of the other comic conversations out there. And still, 24 episodes have been ordered for Season 2—this compared to the first season’s 10 episodes, which according to Crackle, attracted 10 million unique viewers. No, I don’t think we have to worry about losing magic or overexposure here. Thus, I’ll agree with Heisler’s AV Club colleague Nathan Rabin who claims that, in the case of comic conversations anyway, “familiarity breeds affection, not contempt.”

cars

Cars for David, Gervais, Reiner, and Richards.

Image Credits:
1. Comedians in Cars getting Coffee
2. Podcasts
3. Marc Maron
4. Mobility (and cameras)
5. Cars for David, Gervais, Reiner, and Richards

Please feel free to comment.




Flow Favorites: Bromance and the Boys of Boston Legal
Kelli Marshall / University of Toledo

Flow Favorites 2011

Every few years, Flow’s editors select our favorite columns from the last few volumes. We’ve added special introductions and included the original comments to the piece below. Enjoy!

Co-coordinating Editor Colin Tait:
In her astute analysis of David E. Kelly’s lawyer show Boston Legal, Kelli Marshall nails the ambivalent and complicated love story between the show’s male leads, Denny Crane (William Shatner) and Alan Shore (James Spader). Though framed under the recent (and somewhat problematic) popular term “bromance,” Marshall accounts for some of the more sophisticated pleasures of watching mature heterosexual men expressing their love for one another, as well as its bizarre presence within contemporary mainstream television. Since Boston Legal’s audience is obviously older – on ABC during primetime, in the lawyer, cops and docs genre, and featuring protagonists in their 50s – the show could feasibly also present a litmus test which presents far more liberal values than TV is typically given credit for, as well as a worthy subject for further scrutiny, as argued in Marshall’s succinct provocation.

Denny and Allen in tent

Boston Legal’s Alan Shore and Denny Crane

The television show, Boston Legal (David E. Kelley, 2004-2008) is unusual to say the least. While holding a wooden cigarette, a lawyer sporadically pops, purrs, and stomps as he argues cases, another attorney frequently passes gas and allegedly suffers from Mad Cow disease (i.e., Alzheimer’s), the camera constantly fetishizes hands and favors staccato-like zooms, and characters regularly break the fourth wall as they reference Boston Legal’s own time slot on ABC. (( Most of Boston Legal’s episodes include meta-references. For example, Alan once crosses paths with Denny, remarking, ” Ah, there you are, Denny. I’ve hardly seen you this episode.” Similarly, in another episode, Denny tells Carl Sack (John Larroquette), “We need to bond. Hell man, this is our last season.” Likewise, in one of the final episodes, as the firm is going bankrupt, Alan confides to Denny, “Hell, you’ll probably outlive us all. We’ll be dead and buried and you’ll still be kicking, doing Priceline commericals.” (William Shatner, of course, is a spokesperson for Priceline.) A longer list may be Boston Legal’s Star Trek references. )) But perhaps the most atypical feature of the primetime courtroom drama/comedy is its persistent exploration of homosociality as seen through the physically and verbally demonstrative friendship of gregarious lawyer Alan Shore (James Spader) and eccentric attorney Denny Crane (William Shatner).

Unlike most heterosexual male friendships depicted onscreen, Alan and Denny hold hands, openly affirm their love for each other, and sleep over at one another’s house, at times in the same bed. At one point, Denny even forgoes marriage with a sassy cattle-driver (Christine Ebersole) because he cannot fathom moving to a ranch in Montana without Alan (4.18). While the two male attorneys share this unconventional bond, they are also portrayed — like most onscreen “bromantic” couples — as undeniably, perhaps exaggeratedly, heterosexual. For instance, both Alan and Denny successfully bed and overtly objectify women, fixate on their penises, and boast about their illustrious standings in the courtroom. Also representing conventional machismo, Denny carries guns, some loaded with bullets and others with paint balls; nonetheless, he fires both at people and is usually victorious in his aim. Moreover, at the end of virtually every one of Boston Legal’s 100 episodes, Alan and Denny congregate on the balcony of Denny’s office at the law firm of Crane, Poole, and Schmidt to smoke cigars, drink scotch, and discuss their day. This recurring scene is arguably the most intriguing of the show as it is here, amidst noticeably phallic cigars and sometimes the discussion of women, that most of the couple’s uninhibited and multifaceted affection for each other is displayed. See clip below.


There are several reasons to single out Boston Legal among the television shows and films currently (or recently) showcasing homosociality. First, unlike virtually all of the other existing representations of strong male-male relationships (e.g., How I Met Your Mother, Scrubs, Wedding Crashers, Superbad, Role Models), Boston Legal is not purely comedic. As a result, it offers a seriousness and sincerity in tone that other onscreen bromances do not — or, arguably, cannot because industry executives fear losing their (white, heterosexual male) audiences. Second, where most contemporary representations of homosociality are limited to teenage boys and young men in their twenties and early thirties, Boston Legal’s Alan and Denny are roughly 50 and 70. Consequently, the aspirations and everyday dilemmas of the two differ drastically from those of their younger counterparts. Third, virtually no other fictional network characters communicate their friendship more articulately or regularly than Alan and Denny. In fact, I would argue alongside Entertainment Weekly that these two are “the most affectionate straight men on TV [and/or film]” (( Mandi Bierly. “Boston Legal: Why I’ll miss it.” Entertainment Weekly December 8, 2008. ))

Here’s where the problem lies though. To begin with, it’s difficult to situate Alan and Denny’s friendship in this growing list of relatively juvenile sitcoms and superficial animal comedies. Yes, Boston Legal— which the creator once called “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest set in a law firm” — features inane moments (e.g., Denny and Alan donning flamingo costumes, engaging in paintball fights, being tied together in bed, joining the Coast Guard, etc.). But the authenticity and gravitas of Alan’s and Denny’s relationship — which significantly, is the very last image the viewer sees every week in the balcony scenes — often supersedes the sight gags and outlandish behavior.

Boston Legal Collage

Matching flamingos, bed buddies, spa mates

Also problematic, it’s hard to deconstruct the show’s male bond based on the sociological reasons that the bromance has apparently reemerged with such force: financial pressures (i.e., roommates are a more sensible option in this economy), the delay of marriage to age 27 (premarital sex and cohabitation are more accepted), an increase in higher education, and a rise in public displays of male affection/emotion. (( Katherine Bindley. “Here’s to the ‘Bromance’ – straight men embracing close friendships.” Columbia News Service. March 18, 2008. )) After all, with the exception of the fourth reason, none of these things really applies to a late-in-life bromance such as Alan’s and Denny’s.

Finally, it’s difficult to situate Boston Legal alongside Scrubs, Old School, Superbad, and Role Models, for example, because its bromance doesn’t necessarily fit the theoretical reasons that the bromance has resurfaced: (a) the heterosexual male’s supposed anxiety about society’s growing acceptance of homosexuality, and (b) his reservations about progressive women and their sexuality. An unapologetically liberal show, Boston Legal, unlike Judd Apatow’s films and the like, largely refrains from “gay jokes” and homophobic comments. And if such words are uttered (usually by staunch Republican, Denny Crane), they are shot down almost immediately by Alan or the other characters on the show. Regarding women in bromances, according to Joseph Aisenberg, they represent an unknowable threat to the men’s group cohesion”; this is why we often see in these films/shows, “screeching bitches, bosomy sluts, oversexed grandmas, or self-obsessed professionals.” (( Joseph Aisenberg. “Here come the Bromides – Living in the Era of the Bromantic Comedy.” Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue 65, August 2009. )) But again, like the other conventions and explanations cited above, this does not necessarily hold true throughout Boston Legal. In fact, one of the biggest threats to Alan’s and Denny’s relationship was not a woman but another male partner in the law firm (see clip below).

In his autobiography, William Shatner writes that this was “the most intense balcony scene” in the show’s five seasons. “It was a very fragile moment,” Shatner recalls. “I had to express the emotions of a woman who had caught the man she loved cheating on her—but in a very nonsexual way. If I went too far it became broad comedy; if I was too intense it became anger rather than hurt.” Finally, he remembers, “When people talk to me about Boston Legal, this is the [episode] they often cite. More than any other moment, this is the balcony scene that most accurately describes their relationship.” (( William Shatner. “Up Till Now: The Autobiography.” St. Martin’s Press, NY, 2008.” )) This is an understandable reaction as these are themes that consistently define Alan and Denny: they cherish time together, express their love easily and openly, acknowledge jealousy and fidelity as a factor in their bond, and remind us that what they have (which most onscreen men don’t or are afraid to) is irreplaceable. And this is why, for loyal Boston Legal viewers, it wasn’t much of a surprise when the two married in the series finale.

So what does this mean? Where does (or did) Boston Legal fit among this wave of bromances? Or can it? Some critics don’t think it can; they maintain, for example, “None of [the other bromances] hold a candle to the boys of Boston Legal.” (( Mary McNamara. “Boston Legal: the last dance“. Los Angeles Times. December 9, 2008. )) I agree; this one is seemingly in a league of its own, especially when we consider the show’s messages about male-male relationships. That is, age, admiration, and unconditional love produce an intimate, extraordinary friendship in which homophobic jokes and bitchy women play little part. As well, the show ultimately suggests, unlike The Hangover or I Love You, Man, that marriage may satisfy several emotions and purposes: sexual and romantic (Candice Bergen’s Shirley and John Larroquette’s Carl marry alongside Denny and Alan), but also spiritual, financial, and medical. Viewers will notice, for instance (in the above clip), that affection is considered first in Denny’s proposal: “Take my hand,” he offers, then “Take my money.” Indeed, these messages are a far cry from the immature ones featured in Pineapple Express and Forgetting Sarah Marshall — onscreen representations of homosociality that merely mask underlying and unfounded anxieties about sex, sexuality, and ultimately, humanity.

Image Credits:

1. Alan and Denny camping
2. Matching flamingos, bed buddies, and spa mates

Original comments:

Hannah Hamad said:

I think you have demonstrated that Boston Legal was quite prescient in its anticipation of the subsequent glut of more mainstream popular culture that would foreground non-sexual closeness between men, albeit in less nuanced and forward thinking ways than you are suggesting Boston Legal does. It’s also great to see the term bromance being conceptualised with intellectual and critical rigour, given the extent to which it is bandied around in the realm of popular commentary, and the ease with which said commentators now apply it to male friendships depicted across the media spectrum. Also, I’m not sure it’s possible to pin down the moment that term rose to discursive prominence, but is it the case that you are applying the term retrospectively, and that Boston Legal predates widespread use of the term? If so, we might almost understand it to be an ur-text for this trope.

February 12th, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Kelli Marshall said:


Hi, Hannah — thanks for reading and commenting! 
May I first admit that I HATE the word bromance? =) But since it is so “bandied around,” as you point out, I figured I ought to use it. 
I first recall hearing/reading the word bromance shortly after The 40-Year-Old Virgin received such critical and financial success. That would’ve been sometime after the summer of 2006. If I remember correctly, Alan and Denny’s relationship didn’t really move into “bromance” territory — at least not with such full force — until the third season of Boston Legal, which would’ve been about the same time, 2006-07. So I’m not sure I’m applying the term (too) retrospectively, if that makes sense. 
Thanks again!




February 12th, 2011 at 6:26 pm

R. Colin Tait said: 


Hi Kelli,

I’ve been meaning to comment on this article for some time, as my in-laws are huge fans of the show and have been begging me to write about it. 
I feel like you’ve hit a lot of the key points here, but one thing that really strikes me about the show is how successful it is in translating the idea of male love to an older generation of largely genre-based tv watchers. As you’ve mentioned, and as the narrative unfolds, it seems to me that a much more sophisticated depiction of male love occurs onscreen, which (to my mind) is completely understandable a) given Alan and Denny’s friendship, but b) the depth of their genuine love for one another.
What I find interesting about the whole Bromance phenomenon (yuck!) is that it seems to have opened up a previously untapped arena for men to express themselves in genuine terms, beyond the fear of possible repercussions in the social sphere as to their sexual identity. The sudden explosions of these declarations (ranging through Superbad to Step-Brothers, to Abed and Troy on Community) strikes me as a pretty positive sign of the burgeoning realization that men are finally able to express their love for their “boy-friends,” in the same sense that women have “girl-friends”, even if they do have to add “man” to the end of these declarations. 
I think that this accounts for the awkwardness and the wide-ranging popularity. I think that it also speaks to the wide-spread acceptance of such an idea, with Boston Legal – a show that is obviously skewed older, not younger – as indicative of perhaps where we are in terms of “public morality” regarding the issues of gender, sexuality, tolerance and above all, love.


Thanks for writing!



February 13th, 2011 at 3:57 am   

Kelli Marshall said: 


Hi, Colin. Thanks for reading and commenting!
“…how successful it is in translating the idea of male love to an older generation of largely genre-based tv watchers.”
– I find this fascinating as well and wonder if the only way that film/TV is willing to express a genuine “bromance” (yes, yuck!) is via older characters like Alan and Denny. I can think of NO other fictional characters under 40 who compare. Yes, Community’s Abed and Troy are heading in that direction, but still, their affection for each other is mostly comedic/silly. In other discussions on this subject, people have cited House and Wilson, but that relationship, while interesting to watch, is based primarily on jokes, lies, and jealousy — quite different from Alan and Denny’s, don’t you think?
“The sudden explosions of these declarations (ranging through Superbad to Step-Brothers, to Abed and Troy on Community) strikes me as a pretty positive sign of the burgeoning realization that men are finally able to express their love for their “boy-friends[…]“
– You say “finally” here, as though some sort of ban has been lifted. =)


Again, thanks for taking the time to comment!




February 15th, 2011 at 10:52 am   

Vince B. said: 


Hi Kelli,

First, I’m thrilled that someone is actually writing about “Boston Legal.” I think it was a criminally overlooked (though hardly perfect) show for the five years it was on the air, and I was quite saddened when it came to an end. However, I agree that they could not have found a more perfect ending for it. 
This is a wonderful examination of the Denny/Alan relationship, and I agree that it does not “fit among this wave of bromances.” You write that a prime cause of this reemergence is that people are waiting longer to get married. I don’t disagree with that particular point, but I don’t think that it lacks a connection to the situation of Alan and Denny. The two of them are well past 27, but neither of them have found a spouse or lover to stay with, nor do they have children. I would argue that that does indeed drive the homosocial bond between these two men. A lack of youth does not assume that one has settled down. 
The two of them may not have settled with their ideal women, but they do not suspend the search for the duration of the series. Denny is engaged to be married for half of a season, and always has his unrequited love for Candice Bergen’s character. Alan deals with the embers of numerous love affairs, current and failed. And through all the near-successes and eventual failures, the two men congregate on the balcony and ultimately realize that at the end of the day (literally and figuratively) all they have are each other. 
In one of the clips you cite, Denny says that he finds it silly that jealousy or fidelity are reserved for romance. What I find silly is the idea that a close relationship between men is reserved for the young and financially strapped. What always appealed to me the most about the Alan/Denny relationship is that their closeness was not born out of a threat to their sexuality or gender identity, a need to pool finances, or that they were of a similar age. 
Their closeness is the result of two disparate journeys that two very different men have taken through their lives to wind up with each other. Their relationship, fraught with disagreements and jealousies, is a generally pure one born out of choice and love, not a reactionary one to serve a means or assert a male identity. (The being said, their marriage to preserve Denny’s property and their intractably sexist behavior do not keep it wholly free of a slightly reactionary bent.) Their relationship is what kept me coming back every week. And it was a wonderful thing that I am happy to see people write about and I only wish more people had been exposed to.




March 7th, 2011 at 12:12 pm   

Kelli Marshall said: 


Hi, Vince.
Always glad to meet a fellow fan of BL!
 The two of them are well past 27, but neither of them have found a spouse or lover to stay with, nor do they have children. I would argue that that does indeed drive the homosocial bond between these two men. A lack of youth does not assume that one has settled down. 
– This is an excellent point you’ve made, and I appreciate your citing it here.
What I find silly is the idea that a close relationship between men is reserved for the young and financially strapped. What always appealed to me the most about the Alan/Denny relationship is that their closeness was not born out of a threat to their sexuality or gender identity, a need to pool finances, or that they were of a similar age. 
– Agree 100%. This is yet another reason I find BL so darn intriguing in general. I love its focus on “mature” (well, that law firm isn’t always mature, is it?!) characters and their lives. People who’ve lived, survived, grown, failed, thrived, etc. are (to me) FAR more interesting and complicated than the kids in Superbad or the twenty-somethings in Pineapple Express and I Love You, Man, for instance. This is the same reason I appreciate films like Something’s Gotta Give and On Golden Pond. 
Thanks again for taking the time to comment!




March 9th, 2011 at 9:09 am

Please feel free to comment.




Gene Kelly, Volkswagen, and Posthumous Performance
Kelli Marshall / University of Toledo

Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, backseat dancers.

During a Superbowl playoff game on January 23, 2011, Volkswagen aired the above commercial featuring song-and-dance legends Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. Cobbling together body doubles, a green screen, and Kelly’s and O’Connor’s televised “sitting dance,” the Jetta ad revives the two dead performers to emphasize the whopping three feet of leg room in the car’s back seat. “We wanted to bring the Jetta’s rear leg room to life,” claims Eric Springer, one of the project’s creative directors. “It has substantial rear-seat leg room for its segment, and we needed to build a spot dedicated to that competitive advantage.” Let me get this straight: Volkswagen wanted to bring to life the car’s rear leg room by reanimating two dead dancers? This is not the only incongruity with the Jetta ad; it’s just the most amusing. In this column, I’ll consider the above commercial along with Volkswagen’s 2005 “Singin’ in the Rain” spot and assert that while both might succeed within the world of advertising awards (( According to Stink, the Golf GTI commercial “won silverware at the Clios, Eurobest, BTAA and inducted into the APA 50 collection.” )) and in the eyes of some viewers, they disappoint as homages to Gene Kelly and the classical film musical because they draw attention to their own artifice, something neither Kelly nor the genre would presume to do.

When the Jetta advertisement aired earlier this year during the Jets-Steelers game, I turned to Twitter to see how others would react: would they know Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, would they like the commercial, and would it really make them want to buy a Jetta? After the ad aired, my Twitter feed exploded, suggesting that many football fans were indeed familiar with Kelly and O’Connor. Furthermore, several people tweeted that the commercial was mindblowing, nostalgic, awesome, and fantastic; so yes, for some, the ad was a hit. However, the majority of viewers echoed Bill Prady, executive producer of CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, who tweeted, “The Jetta commercial with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor digitally dancing in the back seat makes me sad on a level I cannot truly express.” Here’s a sampling of the Volkswagen backlash:

  • “I love you Jetta, but you can screw yourself for digitally inserting Gene Kelly into your latest ad” (@grrarghing).
  • “Yes, because if Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor were resuscitated, restored & reunited, the first thing they’d do is dance in that backseat” (@AgentMarco).
  • “Just saw a Volkswagen commercial that featured Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor being raped” (@peterluna).
  • “Boycotting VW, specifically the Jetta now. Not fond of Gene Kelly’s estate right now either” (@karinagw).
  • “Just saw the Jetta ad w/ Gene Kelly and Donald O’Conner displaying back seat legroom. #VW you are dead to me” (@tivogirl).
  • “Never thought I’d tweet about Gene Kelly during a Steelers game, but as a Pittsburgher I am not okay with that commercial” (@theconradwaite).

angry bird

Angry Tweets

Others attacked the Jetta ad using more than 140 characters. For instance, NPR’s Linda Holmes laments that the ad “is unconvincing and cheap looking” and, moreover, because it removes the dancers from their context and conceals their use of bricolage (i.e., when performers “spontaneously” make use of props), it further cheapens the art of dance. (( On bricolage, see Jane Feuer, “The Self-Reflexive Musical and the Myth of Entertainment,” Genre: The Musical, Rick Altman, ed., London: Routledge, 1981. 163. )) Similarly, marketing copywriter Coreen Tossana wonders why the viewer should trust Volkswagen’s claim about the spacious legroom; after all, the company “has shown us a doctored video.” Holmes, Tossana, and the hundreds of angry tweeters not only expose the ad’s weak marketing ploys, but they also insinuate that the commercial is a rather poor tribute to Kelly and O’Connor as well as the art of dance and the film musical. Here’s why they’re right:

“Musicals are full of deceptions,” writes Jane Feuer. For example, numbers appear spontaneous and effortless onscreen even though they take weeks or months of preparation. Cameras may merge a theatrical and filmic space to manipulate the viewer’s point of view. Vocals and sounds of tap shoes are rerecorded in post-production even though they presumably occur at the moment of the performance. Songs/numbers not originally written for the film may seem organic and fully integrated. And performers may move into and away from the camera to suggest a three-dimensional space. (( Ibid, 161-66. Also, see Jane Feuer, “Singin’ in the Rain: Winking at the Audience,” Film Analysis: A Norton Reader, Jeffrey Geiger and R. L. Rutsky, eds. New York: WW Norton, 2005. 444; Steven Cohen, “Case Study: Interpreting Singin’ in the Rain,” Reinventing Film Studies, Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams, eds. New York: Oxford UP, 2000, 67. )) However, something that classical musicals and onscreen performers virtually never do is draw attention to these deceptions. Rather, their focuses (among others) are entertaining, showcasing talent, and instilling in the viewer feelings like abundance, energy, and community. (( Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” Genre: The Musical, ed. Rick Altman, London: Routledge, 1981. 176-89. ))

“Gene Kelly” singin’ and poppin’ in the rain.

Unlike classical musical numbers, the Volkswagen commercials emphasize their own artifice. First and most obvious, their subjects, apparently identifiable to many, are dead; as such, viewers immediately recognize the ads and their context as false. Second, the Jetta spot in particular looks contrived (NPR’s Holmes humorously equates it to “an outtake from a TV movie on SyFy like Sharktopus or Mansquito“). Like Fred Astaire in one of the controversial Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner ads or Louis Armstrong in a spot for Diet Coke, Kelly and O’Connor are noticeably cut out, lifted from their original setting, and plunked into an anachronistic mise-en-scene. What’s more, the vibrant quality of the first two shots–in which obvious body doubles open the car door and enter the backseat–differs drastically from Kelly’s and O’Connor’s part, which appears muted and fuzzy, evoking almost an animated quality.

Third, the subjects’ posthumous performances highlight the commercials’ construction. Kelly’s and O’Connor’s actual “sitting dance” lasts about six minutes. In the first half, the stars sit in chairs and recreate each other’s most famous numbers; they talk, tap dance, move their arms and torsos, bump each other’s heels, tap on one another’s chairs, and fiddle with a cup of water. In other words, like all musical performers, they make hours of practice look spontaneous while never once drawing attention to this falsity. Conversely, in the Jetta’s backseat, their performances are questionable. “Why don’t I hear their feet tapping?” the viewer may ask. “Are those really their legs? Are their lower bodies digitally manipulated too?” (( Speaking of Kelly’s and O’Connor’s legs, they are partially obstructed in the commercial, a virtual no-no in classical musicals, which generally frame performers in long shot with nothing blocking their talents. )) In all of these instances–the choice of subjects, quality, and “performance”–the viewer is compelled to pay attention to the ads’ artifice, something neither Kelly, O’Connor, nor the musical would dare to do.

Gene Kelly’s posthumous performance in Volkswagen’s 2005 “Singin’ in the Rain” commercial highlights its trickery even more than the Jetta ad; therefore, it’s perhaps even more disappointing as an homage to Kelly and the genre. In this recreation of the title number from Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952), Kelly’s face has been “pasted” onto the bodies of three poppers/break-dancers (( The poppers are David Elsewhere, Crumbs, and Jay Walker. )) , which means that Kelly is now “performing” steps and gestures that he did not (nor likely would not) while he was alive. Thus, with this ad (and something like Nancy Marchand’s posthumous performance in HBO’s The Sopranos), we’ve embarked upon a new and arguably unethical level of digital manipulation, one that Lisa Bode maintains, “transforms the dead actor’s performance itself at the most fundamental level” (51). Because the Golf GTI commercial has decided on this harvesting/pasting method or “montage within the shot,” (( Lev Manovich calls this type of repurposing, in which there is an increased level of control over individual elements within the frame, “montage within the shot,” qtd. on p. 52 of Lisa Bode, “No Longer Themselves?: Framing Digitally Enabled Posthumous ‘Performance'” Cinema Journal 49.4 (Summer 2010): 46-70. )) it plainly flaunts its own construction. In fact, what’s mostly celebrated about this spot are not the feelings it evokes or how it honors the Golden Age of Hollywood, but the skills of the special effects crew and the dance doubles, (( Bode reports the same findings regarding the Golf GTI ad’s apparent “success” with some viewers (52). )) the latter of which is a vocation Gene Kelly was definitely not a fan. (( In an 1985 interview with Margy Rochlin, Gene Kelly was asked about the dance doubles in Flashdance: “I don’t understand the whole concept of doubles…in Flashdance you have triples, quadruples. From my point of view it is bad for the art. In film, a dancer should always be shot from head to toe, because that way you can see the whole body and that is the art of dancing. Nowadays they shoot the nose. Left nostril. Right nostril. Hand. Foot. Bust. Derriere. The film prevents you from determining who is a good dancer and who is not.” ))

Volkswagen’s communications manager states, “The scene from Singin’ in the Rain is a memorable, classic film moment, showing Gene Kelly at his very best. Volkswagen felt that this moment encapsulates the very essence of Gene and we feel that our latest GTI captures the spirit of the Volkswagen Golf GTI as a stylish and classic car that has, like Gene, stood the test of time.” Much like Volkswagen’s wanting to resurrect two deceased dancers to “bring to life” a car’s backseat leg room, the irony here is comical. That is, an advertising company acknowledges the title number from Singin’ in the Rain as classic and unforgettable, featuring a dancer at the top of his game. But then, said company removes from virtually the exact mise-en-scene the very thing that makes the number iconic: Gene Kelly singin’ and dancin’ (not poppin’) in the rain. Alas, this is just another way the company makes the viewer fully aware of its ad’s constructed nature.

Image Credits:
1. Angry Twitter Bird

Please feel free to comment.




Bromance and the Boys of Boston Legal
Kelli Marshall / University of Toledo

Denny and Allen in tent

Boston Legal’s Alan Shore and Denny Crane

The television show, Boston Legal (David E. Kelley, 2004-2008) is unusual to say the least. While holding a wooden cigarette, a lawyer sporadically pops, purrs, and stomps as he argues cases, another attorney frequently passes gas and allegedly suffers from Mad Cow disease (i.e., Alzheimer’s), the camera constantly fetishizes hands and favors staccato-like zooms, and characters regularly break the fourth wall as they reference Boston Legal’s own time slot on ABC. (( Most of Boston Legal’s episodes include meta-references. For example, Alan once crosses paths with Denny, remarking, ” Ah, there you are, Denny. I’ve hardly seen you this episode.” Similarly, in another episode, Denny tells Carl Sack (John Larroquette), “We need to bond. Hell man, this is our last season.” Likewise, in one of the final episodes, as the firm is going bankrupt, Alan confides to Denny, “Hell, you’ll probably outlive us all. We’ll be dead and buried and you’ll still be kicking, doing Priceline commericals.” (William Shatner, of course, is a spokesperson for Priceline.) A longer list may be Boston Legal’s Star Trek references. )) But perhaps the most atypical feature of the primetime courtroom drama/comedy is its persistent exploration of homosociality as seen through the physically and verbally demonstrative friendship of gregarious lawyer Alan Shore (James Spader) and eccentric attorney Denny Crane (William Shatner).

Unlike most heterosexual male friendships depicted onscreen, Alan and Denny hold hands, openly affirm their love for each other, and sleep over at one another’s house, at times in the same bed. At one point, Denny even forgoes marriage with a sassy cattle-driver (Christine Ebersole) because he cannot fathom moving to a ranch in Montana without Alan (4.18). While the two male attorneys share this unconventional bond, they are also portrayed — like most onscreen “bromantic” couples — as undeniably, perhaps exaggeratedly, heterosexual. For instance, both Alan and Denny successfully bed and overtly objectify women, fixate on their penises, and boast about their illustrious standings in the courtroom. Also representing conventional machismo, Denny carries guns, some loaded with bullets and others with paint balls; nonetheless, he fires both at people and is usually victorious in his aim. Moreover, at the end of virtually every one of Boston Legal’s 100 episodes, Alan and Denny congregate on the balcony of Denny’s office at the law firm of Crane, Poole, and Schmidt to smoke cigars, drink scotch, and discuss their day. This recurring scene is arguably the most intriguing of the show as it is here, amidst noticeably phallic cigars and sometimes the discussion of women, that most of the couple’s uninhibited and multifaceted affection for each other is displayed. See clip below.


There are several reasons to single out Boston Legal among the television shows and films currently (or recently) showcasing homosociality. First, unlike virtually all of the other existing representations of strong male-male relationships (e.g., How I Met Your Mother, Scrubs, Wedding Crashers, Superbad, Role Models), Boston Legal is not purely comedic. As a result, it offers a seriousness and sincerity in tone that other onscreen bromances do not — or, arguably, cannot because industry executives fear losing their (white, heterosexual male) audiences. Second, where most contemporary representations of homosociality are limited to teenage boys and young men in their twenties and early thirties, Boston Legal’s Alan and Denny are roughly 50 and 70. Consequently, the aspirations and everyday dilemmas of the two differ drastically from those of their younger counterparts. Third, virtually no other fictional network characters communicate their friendship more articulately or regularly than Alan and Denny. In fact, I would argue alongside Entertainment Weekly that these two are “the most affectionate straight men on TV [and/or film]” (( Mandi Bierly. “Boston Legal: Why I’ll miss it.” Entertainment Weekly December 8, 2008. ))

Here’s where the problem lies though. To begin with, it’s difficult to situate Alan and Denny’s friendship in this growing list of relatively juvenile sitcoms and superficial animal comedies. Yes, Boston Legal— which the creator once called “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest set in a law firm” — features inane moments (e.g., Denny and Alan donning flamingo costumes, engaging in paintball fights, being tied together in bed, joining the Coast Guard, etc.). But the authenticity and gravitas of Alan’s and Denny’s relationship — which significantly, is the very last image the viewer sees every week in the balcony scenes — often supersedes the sight gags and outlandish behavior.

Boston Legal Collage

Matching flamingos, bed buddies, spa mates

Also problematic, it’s hard to deconstruct the show’s male bond based on the sociological reasons that the bromance has apparently reemerged with such force: financial pressures (i.e., roommates are a more sensible option in this economy), the delay of marriage to age 27 (premarital sex and cohabitation are more accepted), an increase in higher education, and a rise in public displays of male affection/emotion. (( Katherine Bindley. “Here’s to the ‘Bromance’ – straight men embracing close friendships.” Columbia News Service. March 18, 2008. )) After all, with the exception of the fourth reason, none of these things really applies to a late-in-life bromance such as Alan’s and Denny’s.

Finally, it’s difficult to situate Boston Legal alongside Scrubs, Old School, Superbad, and Role Models, for example, because its bromance doesn’t necessarily fit the theoretical reasons that the bromance has resurfaced: (a) the heterosexual male’s supposed anxiety about society’s growing acceptance of homosexuality, and (b) his reservations about progressive women and their sexuality. An unapologetically liberal show, Boston Legal, unlike Judd Apatow’s films and the like, largely refrains from “gay jokes” and homophobic comments. And if such words are uttered (usually by staunch Republican, Denny Crane), they are shot down almost immediately by Alan or the other characters on the show. Regarding women in bromances, according to Joseph Aisenberg, they represent an unknowable threat to the men’s group cohesion”; this is why we often see in these films/shows, “screeching bitches, bosomy sluts, oversexed grandmas, or self-obsessed professionals.” (( Joseph Aisenberg. “Here come the Bromides – Living in the Era of the Bromantic Comedy.” Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue 65, August 2009. )) But again, like the other conventions and explanations cited above, this does not necessarily hold true throughout Boston Legal. In fact, one of the biggest threats to Alan’s and Denny’s relationship was not a woman but another male partner in the law firm (see clip below).

In his autobiography, William Shatner writes that this was “the most intense balcony scene” in the show’s five seasons. “It was a very fragile moment,” Shatner recalls. “I had to express the emotions of a woman who had caught the man she loved cheating on her—but in a very nonsexual way. If I went too far it became broad comedy; if I was too intense it became anger rather than hurt.” Finally, he remembers, “When people talk to me about Boston Legal, this is the [episode] they often cite. More than any other moment, this is the balcony scene that most accurately describes their relationship.” (( William Shatner. “Up Till Now: The Autobiography.” St. Martin’s Press, NY, 2008.” )) This is an understandable reaction as these are themes that consistently define Alan and Denny: they cherish time together, express their love easily and openly, acknowledge jealousy and fidelity as a factor in their bond, and remind us that what they have (which most onscreen men don’t or are afraid to) is irreplaceable. And this is why, for loyal Boston Legal viewers, it wasn’t much of a surprise when the two married in the series finale.

So what does this mean? Where does (or did) Boston Legal fit among this wave of bromances? Or can it? Some critics don’t think it can; they maintain, for example, “None of [the other bromances] hold a candle to the boys of Boston Legal.” (( Mary McNamara. “Boston Legal: the last dance“. Los Angeles Times. December 9, 2008. )) I agree; this one is seemingly in a league of its own, especially when we consider the show’s messages about male-male relationships. That is, age, admiration, and unconditional love produce an intimate, extraordinary friendship in which homophobic jokes and bitchy women play little part. As well, the show ultimately suggests, unlike The Hangover or I Love You, Man, that marriage may satisfy several emotions and purposes: sexual and romantic (Candice Bergen’s Shirley and John Larroquette’s Carl marry alongside Denny and Alan), but also spiritual, financial, and medical. Viewers will notice, for instance (in the above clip), that affection is considered first in Denny’s proposal: “Take my hand,” he offers, then “Take my money.” Indeed, these messages are a far cry from the immature ones featured in Pineapple Express and Forgetting Sarah Marshall — onscreen representations of homosociality that merely mask underlying and unfounded anxieties about sex, sexuality, and ultimately, humanity.

Image Credits:

1. Alan and Denny camping
2. Matching flamingos, bed buddies, and spa mates

Please feel free to comment.




The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear: For the Young or the Young at Heart?
Kelli Marshall/ University of Toledo

Rally Poster

The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear Official Poster

As I have with award shows, conferences, and, yes, in-class screenings of Body Heat (Lawrence Kasden, 1981), I intended to live-tweet the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, held October 30, 2010, on the Mall in Washington D.C. But that plan was shot to hell around 9:00 AM on the day of the event, when I—and thousands of other unlucky AT&T customers—realized we would have no phone or Internet service for the next seven hours. This technological breakdown ((Digital Gravitas, an internet culture blog, and The Nation‘s blog have also commented on the technological mishap)) apparently frustrated many families and friends who were trying to schedule meeting times and locales amid the swelling crowd of 215,000. (( Figures vary here. For more see NY Daily News. )) But for me, the tower overload meant that I couldn’t report on or post pictures of the activities as I’d promised, nor could I engage with those on the rally backchannel like Brian Stelter, whose live-tweeting echoed what I’d been thinking since I boarded the plane in Detroit eighteen hours earlier: namely, that the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear was not necessarily “a Woodstock for the Millennial generation” as some had touted, but an event aimed heavily at Generation X and Baby Boomers, or those fans who are singlehandedly raising the median viewing age of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. (( Blogs covering reactions to the event include The Caucus and ComPost ))

Stelter's tweet

Stelter’s was the last tweet I read before my phone service shut down completely.

A journalist for the NY Times, Stelter predicted that after the rally, the media would be buzzing about the age diversity on the Mall. But they didn’t. Rather, the anchors, journalists, and bloggers focused primarily on the signage, the unexpected turnout (215,000 vs. the predicted 60,000), and Jon Stewart’s stirring 12-minute speech/pep talk. And of course, one network covered the rally as an “insane” pot-fest, claiming erroneously that Proposition 19, a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana, was “one of the more common issues seen on signs.” Not true. While standing in the congested subway station, walking a mile to Mall, shimmying through the crowd, securing a spot near a JumboTron, and leaving the rally, I saw maybe four signs (out of hundreds) that alluded to Prop 19 or drugs. In any event, the huge audience and Stewart’s heartfelt attack on America’s “24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator” certainly warranted media coverage. But so did that which Stelter, other attendees, and I were noting both visually and virtually: that is, Gen-X and Baby Boomers were strongly represented in the crowd and onstage; and this, it seems, is something few people expected.

rallytweet1

Live Twitter feed During the Rally.

Again, from the moment I flew out of Detroit, I realized that the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear would not be the so-called Millennial Woodstock I’d heard about for the week prior. First, sitting in the window seat across from me was a Baby Boomer who proudly displayed his Rally to Restore Sanity hat. The following day, I stood shoulder to shoulder on a crowded subway with a couple in their late 60s who indicated their destination via t-shirts that read “I’m not afraid of Muslims, tea partiers, socialists, immigrants, gun owners, or gays. But I am scared of spiders.” Then, after stepping foot on the Mall and winding through the mob, I set up camp next to some Gen-Xers and several more Boomers, two of whom were initially “at the front near the stage” but relocated because they “were getting pushed back too much by the crowd.” But what really solidified this notion that the rally was conceptualized for the young and the young at heart was the program, chock full of performers and guests more familiar to people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s than the generation usually mentioned in succession with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

baby boomers

My Baby Boomer “neighbors” enjoying the rally.

Specifically, the roster for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear (which was not released to the public beforehand) featured the following personalities/performers: The Roots, John Legend, Star Wars‘s R2-D2, Jeff Tweedy, Kid Rock, and Sheryl Crow — young(ish), hip, pop-culture icons with whom most Millennials are likely familiar. (( A sparse version of the schedule was leaked on the Christian Science Monitor the week before the rally. )) But also featured onstage that brisk fall afternoon (and arguably the most memorable) were Yusef Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), The O’Jays, Ozzy Osbourne, Father Guido Sarducci, Law & Order‘s Sam Waterson, Mythbusters‘s Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, Mavis Staples, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Tony Bennett—names/artists more recognizable to Generation X and Baby Boomers than the supposed regular viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. In fact, with the exception of The Prince of Darkness and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, few of my students (I have about 200) could recognize the latter names (see poll below). (( While I didn’t ask them, I imagine most of my students recognize Ozzy Osbourne from his MTV reality show, The Osbournes (2002-05), not his band, Black Sabbath, or his music. )) Moreover, one student tweeted that even after he looked up some of the people, he still didn’t know who they were. In the same vein, a NY Times writer had to counsel his readers on Don Novello’s Saturday Night Live character who provided the rally’s “benediction”: “If you’re not familiar with the comedy of Father Guido, ask your parents. If they’re not familiar, have them ask your grandparents.” No, young person, just turn to the 40- or 50-year-old standing right next to you.

Student Poll

I polled my students, “Which people/names do you recognize?”

As I’ve suggested above, audiences of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are typically portrayed as liberal, lazy, pot-smoking college students — “stoned slackers,” Bill O’Reilly likes to say. Or as Rush Limbaugh put it a couple of days before the rally, they’re kids who are willing “to sit around, get drunk, smoke some doobies, and listen to putrid jokes told by a couple of half-baked comedians.” (( See Limbaugh’s comment at http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/201010270021 )) Furthermore, even when Stewart’s and Colbert’s viewers are represented positively in the media—for example, as being more in tune to election issues than non-TV-watchers and more “confident in their ability to understand the complicated world of politics“—the age-range covered is virtually always 18-25.

But as the world now knows, Millennials are clearly not the only demographic that watches, embraces, and relishes in the smart satire of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Of course, those of us who’ve researched the two programs have been aware of this for years. For instance, we knew that in 2006, the average age of viewers was 35, their average income was $67,000, and they were 78% more likely than the average adult to have four or more years of college education. What’s more, we now know that the shows’ viewing age is steadily rising, for according to Nielsen ratings and a Forbes report, the median age of Stewart’s viewers is currently 41.4, and Colbert’s has risen from 33 to 38. I can only imagine that as the hosts and their audiences age, the figures will continue to increase. But so what? If the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear is any indication of what that future will look like, why that’s not bad at all.

rallytweets2

rallytweets3

Live Twitter Feed During the Rally.

Image Credits:

1. Rally Poster
2. Brian Stelter’s Tweet
3. Captures of live Twitter feed compiled by author on October 29, 2010 from the following Twitter accounts:
@MsDannah
@aaronbrethorst
@pamressler
4. Baby boomers image produced by author
5. Student Poll
6. Captures of live Twitter feed compiled by author on October 29, 2010 from the following Twitter accounts:
@et_cerica
@BubblyHeart
@isaxgonzalez
@JRudis
@SailRabbits
@AlexLemmel
@jeffjarvis
@AgentEmily

Please feel free to comment.




So Why Did Everybody Love Raymond?
Kelli Marshall / University of Toledo

Raymond, Seinfeld Cast Promo Shots

Cast Promo Shots of Everybody Loves Raymond and Seinfeld

Since Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005) premiered, critics have compared it to Seinfeld (1989-1998). ((Warren Berger, “Looks Like ‘Seinfeld,’ But Call It ‘Raymond,’ New York Times (1 Feb. 1998): AR41 (ProQuest); Neal Gabler, “Loving ‘Raymond,’ A Sitcom for Our Times,” New York Times (21 Oct. 2001): AR30 (ProQuest); David Wild, “The Cult of Ray,” Rolling Stone 17 Oct. 1996 (Academic Search Premier); Peter M. Nichols, “Raymond Is Loved. What’s Not to Love?” New York Times (17 Nov. 1996): TE3, (ProQuest); Bret Watson, Entertainment Weekly (13 Dec. 1996): 34; Tom Gliatto, “Picks and Pans: Everybody Loves Raymond,” People 46.11 (9 Sept. 1996): 14.)) At first glance, this association seems ridiculous given that the characters, structure, and themes of the two sitcoms ostensibly have little in common. For example, Seinfeld is a decidedly postmodern program featuring four unabashedly single Manhattanites; it is usually structured via short narrative segments, many self-reflexive in nature, that often interlock to form a tight yet complex whole; recurring themes include casual dating and sex, toilet habits, and political correctness. Conversely, Raymond is a conventional, middle-class family sitcom set in the suburbs; it employs a traditional, uncomplicated three-act structure; repeated topics include sexless marriages, in-law troubles, and sibling rivalry. ((Gabler describes Raymond’s three-act structure as a “roundelay of rationalization, recrimination, and remorse.” For example, Ray begins the episode doing something “juvenile or selfish or both.” Then, he attempts to defend himself to his wife or other family members. Finally, Ray’s “guilt sets in, and the remorse, but only very occasionally the wisdom.”))

Still, those critics who’ve looked closely at Everybody Loves Raymond and Seinfeld locate several similarities, even suggesting that fans of one program will readily become fans of the other. For instance, both sitcoms center on fortysomething stand-up comedians from New York who lack acting experience and whose comedy is grounded in the mundane observations of daily life. Moreover, both shows are very much ensemble efforts, distinctly ethnic (Italian-American and Jewish), and feature dysfunctional supporting characters “who barge through the door and into [each other’s] chaotic lives.” ((Nichols; Berger.)) While these conclusions are legitimate — and in hindsight, rather obvious — I’m not sure they are the main reasons that viewers of Seinfeld, roughly 18 million during its heyday, would theoretically gravitate toward Everybody Loves Raymond, which also drew about 18 million during its prime. ((Ratings for Raymond and ratings for Seinfeld.)) After all, King of Queens (1998-2007), Yes Dear (2000-2006), My Wife and Kids (2000-2005), The Bernie Mac Show (2001-2006) and According to Jim (2001-2009) also incorporated most of the above attributes, but they never had the ratings of Raymond or Seinfeld, not to mention the awards or critical success. Rather, I propose that so many Americans embraced Everybody Loves Raymond because it repositioned yet sustained the qualities that viewers (for better or worse) appreciated in Seinfeld: well-crafted, narcissistic characters suspended in adolescence, a consistent and humorous focus on the minutiae of human existence, and a guiding mantra of “no hugging, no learning.”

In “Seinfeld‘s Humor Noir,” Irwin Hirsch and Cara Hirsch maintain that Seinfeld stands out among sitcoms because its adult characters function as adolescents, celebrate narcissism, and take pleasure in their own venal behavior. ((Irwin Hirsch and Cara Hirsch, “Seinfeld‘s Humor Noir: A Look at Our Dark Side.” Journal of Popular Film & Television (Fall 2000): 116-123.)) The four possess no “redeeming, positive, humanistic values,” Hirsch and Hirsch point out. ((Ibid, 123.)) Indeed, as all Seinfeld devotees know, Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), George (Jason Alexander), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and Kramer (Michael Richards) value games over rules of propriety (e.g., masturbation contests, Trivial Pursuit with the Bubble Boy, Kramer’s gambling), break commitments over the smallest flaws (e.g., “low-talkers,” “bad breaker-uppers,” “man-hands,” “Jimmy legs”), obsess over bodily functions (e.g., reading on the toilet, “shrinkage,” nose-picking), scoff at traditional rites of passage like marriage or pregnancy (e.g., “Ugh, it’s been done to death”), and take pride in their emotional barrenness (e.g., George opts for coffee after the death of his fiancée, Kramer giddily videos an obese man who’s being mugged). Ultimately, all of this relentless cynicism and corrupt characterization is encapsulated in Seinfeld‘s guiding philosophy “no hugging, no learning,” i.e., the show will offer no moral lessons, and the characters will never become sentimental with each other. ((On Larry David’s cardinal rule “no hugging, no learning,” see Lisa Schwartzbaum, “Much Ado about Nothing,” Entertainment Weekly 9 (April 1993); Albert Auster, “Much Ado about Nothing: Some Final Thoughts on Seinfeld,” Television Quarterly 19 (1998): 24-33; and Matthew Bond, “Do you think they’re having babies just so people will visit them? Parents and Children in SeinfeldSeinfeld: Master of Its Domain: Revisiting Television’s Greatest Sitcom, Eds. David Lavery and Sara Lewis Dunne, New York: Continuum, 108-150.))

George Costanza Shrinkage

George undergoes “shrinkage”

Jerry's

Jerry’s date grips him with “man hands”

Although its setting and characters may have relocated — from Manhattan to the suburbs of Long Island, from singlehood to married life — Everybody Loves Raymond maintains these distinctly Seinfeldian traits. First, like Seinfeld‘s characters, the Barone family approaches life as a game, rivaling each other within their own little dysfunctional “clubhouse atmosphere.” ((Hirsch and Hirsch use this phrase to describe Seinfeld‘s locations, Jerry’s apartment and Monk’s Cafe, 119.)) While each family member exhibits this trait, ((Other family members compete as well. For example, Ray and Debra battle over who is the better test-taker (1.4), children’s-book writer (2.30), checkbook-balancer (2.38), gift-giver (5.108), and disciplinarian (7.162). Frank challenges Ray to ping-pong (3.60), and Marie sabotages Debra’s food just so she can remain the favorite matriarch (2.37). Furthermore, Ray pits himself against his more sexually active father (4.77), Debra’s attractive aerobics teacher (4.78), his daughter’s outspoken Girl Scout leader (6.137, 7.166), and an annoying 8-year-old kid (7.155). Finally, the entire family tries to one-up each other over about which member is the angriest (6.123), the worthiest to represent them in a Christmas-letter (6.134), the most fun (6.136), the best marriage counselor (8.175), the best liar (8.178), and the most religious (7.164).)) it is perhaps most evident in the competition that takes place between Ray Romano’s Raymond — a sports writer, husband to Debra (Patricia Heaton), and favorite son of Frank (Peter Boyle) and Marie (Doris Roberts) — and his older brother, Robert (Brad Garrett) — a morose NYC policeman who still lives with his parents and openly resents virtually everything about his younger brother. For instance, the two have competed over the title basketball captain (1.11), a prize in a box of cereal (1.7), their appearances (1.14), gift purchases (2.31, 3.59, 4.84, 7.158), a Civil War reenactment (2.35), a toothbrush (3.55), dancing partners (3.71), the affection of children and future in-laws (5.119, 7.161), their names (6.132), tending bar (9.203), and overall, their parents’ attention. The brothers have also fought physically, wrestling each other to the ground like spoiled children because Robert’s promotion to lieutenant garnered more attention than Ray’s simultaneous announcement that he might publish a book (5.103). ((Also like Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer, Raymond‘s characters engage in general juvenile behavior. For instance, Debra dumps food on Raymond’s crotch (1.4); Ray wants to keep an old rundown car only because he “got lucky” in it (1.15); Ray, Robert, and Frank devour an entire chocolate cake before Marie catches them (3.52); Ray places a blow-up clown in the bed so Debra will have something other than him to cuddle with (3.67); Frank uses Ray’s sports insight to gamble (4.76); Raymond tapes a football game over his and Debra’s wedding (4.89); and Robert is gored by a bull (4.88).))

Ray and Robert Video Games

Robert and Raymond engage in literal game-playing

Second, also like Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond scrutinizes the insignificant details of daily life and reveals how such analyses directly and humorously affect its characters. It is now common knowledge that Seinfeld procured the title “a show about nothing” because it created segments and sometimes entire episodes around such typically mundane topics as waiting in line at a restaurant, re-gifting a present, finding a hair on one’s food, and double-dipping a potato chip. In the same way, Raymond regularly makes something out of nothing. For example, episodes unfold around a fruit-of-the-month club (1.1), an engraved toaster (3.59), a can opener (4.76), P.M.S. (4.95), sneezing (5.107), choking (5.109), a vacuum cleaner (5.115), the wrong brand of Kleenex (6.135), sighing (7.154), the placement of a suitcase (7.196), tardiness (8.185), eating habits (8.189), and smoking (9.209).

Raymond and Debra fight over can opener

All hell breaks loose over a new can opener

Finally, not unlike Jerry et al, the Barones refuse to “hug” or “learn,” consistently shooting down moral lessons and possible moments of genuineness with insensitive or spiteful dialogue. ((A handful of shows do not subscribe to this “no hugging, no learning” motto. Most of them are season finales, which are often told via flashbacks (e.g., Ray and Debra’s wedding, the birth of their daughter, etc.) and usually take on a slightly more sentimental tone.)) For instance, in “Jealous Robert” (6.129), Frank recounts how, when he was younger, he was so envious Marie cooked for another man that he “punched the headlights off of [the guy’s] car” and then “spent the night in the hospital, picking glass out of [his] arm.” Here, the viewer seemingly believes that even the most hardened, unemotional man once had strong feelings for his wife. But this notion is quickly shattered with the next exchange:

Raymond: Wow, dad, I never thought there was a story like that behind you and mom. It’s almost romantic.

Frank Barone: Yeah, I know. I don’t tell that story a lot.

Ray Barone: How come?

Frank Barone: Because it doesn’t have a happy ending. ((Later in “Robert’s Jealous,” Frank still fumes that he let Marie’s food get the best of him (and his jealous nature) so many years ago: “Chuck Pacarello [the man for whom Marie was cooking]. Where the hell is he? That son of a bitch owes me. I’m serving his life sentence!))

Similarly, in “The Plan” (7.165), Robert and his fiancée, Amy (Monica Horan), reconcile after fighting over misspelled wedding invitations. Before the entire Barone clan, Amy confides, “Robert and I are getting married, and I want us to be honest and trusting. […] I want to get married because I know how great it can be. Maybe it isn’t easy, but I think it’s worth going for.” Robert lovingly concurs, and then the couple exits, leaving the viewer with a potential lesson about love, marriage, and forgiveness. Yet within seconds, that message is cut down with Debra’s dialogue, “Wow. Remember when we were that stupid?” The frame fades to black.

One of the most interesting uses of Seinfeld‘s “no hugging, no learning” mantra is found in “The Lone Barone” (3.56), an episode in which Ray vents to Robert how miserable married life can be, e.g., waiting “all day for Debra’s damn curtains” to be delivered, being “held hostage, trapped inside all of these walls,” being “happy as she lets me be, sleeping when she lets me sleep, eating when she lets me eat,” and finally, seeing the movie she wants to see, “the one where the mother has the disease and the daughter who learns to care about the mother who has the disease.” When these declarations (allegedly) cause Robert to break up with Amy, Ray is forced to reexamine married life and deliver a revised speech. Here it is, paired with a similar one from Seinfeld:

Seinfeld/Raymond Marriage Dialogue Comparison

Similar marriage dialogue on Seinfeld and Raymond

The resemblances here are uncanny. Not only does some of the language match word for word, but also the (long-standing) philosophy that marriage is a prison and that once a man enters it, he is never alone or allowed to do what he wants to do. Indeed, married life can be, both shows argue, “a sad state of affairs.” No hugging, no learning.

One reason that this family sitcom gets away with such traditionally non-familyish qualities is that the Barone children (played by real-life siblings Madylin, Sullivan, and Sawyer Sweeten) rarely appear; they are usually, one critic notes, “tucked out of sight, leaving the adults to have at each other.” ((Berger.)) This setup differs dramatically from similarly constructed family sitcoms of the last couple of decades like Family Ties, Growing Pains, Full House, The Cosby Show, and Home Improvement — series in which “the situation was typically a problem involving one of the children” and the parents would “guide the child through a solution, providing a moral lesson along the way.” ((Richard Butsch, “A Half Century of Class and Gender in American TV Domestic Sitcoms,” Cercles 8 (2003): 16-34.)) But again, this break from the norm is probably something viewers of Raymond should expect. After all, despite its surface appearances and traditional three-act structure, Everybody Loves Raymond is not like other family sitcoms. Rather, its juvenile characters with virtually no redeeming qualities and its almost complete rejection of moral lessons place it closer to its predecessor and short-lived contemporary Seinfeld than those which featured the always loveable Bill Cosby or Tim Allen.

Image Credits:

1. Cast Promo Shots of Everybody Loves Raymond and Seinfeld
2. George undergoes “shrinkage”
3. Jerry’s date grips him with “man hands”
4. Robert and Raymond engage in literal game-playing
5. All hell breaks loose over a new can opener
6. Image by author

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Show Musical Good, Paired Segments Better: Glee’s Unevenness Explained
Kelli Marshall / University of Toledo

Glee Group Still

Hey kids, let’s put on a show (musical)!

Before I explain why Fox’s musical comedy-drama Glee often feels uneven, I’d like to point out what the show gets right. Principally, Glee‘s creator, Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck), has adopted the most suitable musical subgenre for his project: the show musical. ((The show musical is also known as the backstage musical and the self-reflective musical. On the latter, see Jane Feuer, “The Self-reflective Musical and the Myth of Entertainment,” Genre: The Musical. Ed. Rick Altman (London: Routledge, 1981), 159-74.)) Of the subgenres — fairy tale, folk, and show — the show musical, whose numbers typically perform a purpose (e.g., auditions, rehearsals, performances), best caters to Murphy’s objective that the cast doesn’t “suddenly burst into song.” ((Well-known examples of the fairy tale musical are Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935) and An American in Paris (Vincent Minnelli, 1951), of the folk musical, Oklahoma! (Fred Zinnemann, 1955) and Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincent Minnelli, 1944), and of the show musical, Singin in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952) and Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972). For a detailed explanation of the three musical subgenres, see Rick Altman, The American Film Musical (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).)) When the characters sing, Murphy claims, they will do so only when they are on stage practicing or performing, in the rehearsal classroom, or in a fantasy state (i.e., a performance in their head). Limiting the numbers to these situations, he believes, will make Glee “more accessible to people.” ((There are other reasons the show musical is the best option for Glee and Murphy’s aims: first, it is the subgenre most closely tied to the music industry (Altman 271); second, its performances (like those in the folk musical) emphasize “the integration of the individual into a community or group” (Feuer 166); and third, it employs clichéd stereotypical characters but mainly to “restore meaning to the atmosphere that seems devoid of it” (Altman 252).))

Glee may have assumed the best musical subgenre for its purpose, but the show doesn’t always thrive within said subgenre. And people notice. For example, reviews of the first season swing frantically back and forth, from the show is “so funny, so bulging with vibrant characters” and “these performances are wonderful, […] shaping a fully realized world” to this is “wildly incoherent” and “simply a mess.” Much of this unevenness, I believe, boils down to Murphy’s refusal to implement consistently one of the most important structural conventions of the musical genre: paired segments, evenly spaced thematic and/or sexual comparisons/oppositions underscored via setting, shot selection, music, dance, and personal style. ((Altman, 33-45. While I’m arguing that Glee feels uneven because it consistently rejects paired segments, I’m also aware that the show likely feels this way because it juxtaposes ridiculous storylines (e.g., Terri Schuester’s fake pregnancy, Sue Sylvester’s outlandish attempts to sabotage Schuester and the glee club) with rather poignant ones (e.g., Kurt’s conversations with his father, Quinn’s parents disowning her). Moreover, as Todd VanDerWerff points out, some of Glee‘s unpredictability may also have to do with its three-writer problem, i.e., Glee‘s three writers — Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan — “seem to have wildly different ideas of what the show is.”)) As Rick Altman explains, with musicals the viewer must “forget familiar notions of plot, psychological motivation, and causal relationships” and surrender instead to “simultaneity and similarity” (e.g., male/female, talented/inept, teacher/student, gay/straight, popular/ostracized). ((Altman, 28. In his work, Altman mostly considers heterosexual romantic couples; however, musicals also create parallel segments for groups of characters like those found in Glee, for instance, Sharks/Jets in West Side Story (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961), Pink Ladies/T-Birds in Grease! (Randal Kleiser, 1978), and children/parents in Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964), The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965), and Annie (John Huston, 1982).))

Glee Paired Segments Chart

Not all that colorful, but at least consistent.

At least three episodes of Glee feature uniform parallel segments: “Pilot,” “Wheels,” and “Journey.” Significantly, these episodes are also the most highly praised of the season. ((For critical reception, see The Onion‘s AV Club, Time‘s Tuned In, Metacritic, as well as Wikipedia‘s summaries of “Pilot,” “Wheels,” and “Journey.” I should note, however, that while “Wheels” was widely praised, it was not without controversy; some performers with disabilities claimed it was inappropriate to cast an able-bodied actor (Kevin McHale) as a disabled student. Still, this criticism, while perhaps warranted, has little to do with the show’s narrative structure.)) Unlike those which critics have panned or are divided over (e.g., “Hairography,” “Once Upon A Mattress,” “Home,” “Funk“), these three carefully and consistently juxtapose individual characters and groups. For example, “Wheels” begins and ends with Artie (Kevin McHale) dancing in the school’s auditorium, first by himself and then with his friends in the glee club. Likewise, “Journey” contrasts the vocal and dance abilities of New Directions with that of its show-choir nemesis, Vocal Adrenaline, and then closes with another parallel segment: New Directions singing to their teacher/mentor, Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison) and Schuester returning the favor to his students (see table above). Through these parallel numbers, the characters develop and the viewer understands their growth. ((One of the other relatively highly praised episodes, “Dream On,” also includes paired segments. First, Schuester and his old show-choir nemesis, Bryan Ryan (Neil Patrick Harris), reunite by singing “Piano Man” and then compete with “Dream On.” Second, Rachel and her mother, Shelby (Idina Menzel), pair up for “I Dreamed a Dream” (this also recalls Rachel’s Les Miserables song from the “Pilot”). Third, an idealistic Artie performs “Safety Dance,” and then later, a more rational Artie leads New Directions in “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”))

Artie Solo Performance on Glee

Artie Group Performance on Glee

Artie initially “dancing by himself” and then “proudly” with New Directions.

What’s more, the musical numbers in these three episodes are limited (unlike those in “The Power of Madonna,” for instance) and spread evenly throughout. For example, like its show-musical predecessors Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952) and The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953), Glee‘s “Pilot” features a song about every 10 minutes; moreover, “Wheels” positions its songs in a nearly perfect arc: one at the beginning, middle, and end. Finally, each of the numbers in these episodes serves a convincing purpose. For instance, in “Pilot,” Rachel (Lea Michele) auditions for glee club with “On My Own,” effectively informing the viewer she is both passionate about Broadway musicals and isolated in high school. Echoing this number, Finn (Cory Monteith) sings REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling,” conveying to us that although glee club isn’t traditionally for football players, he won’t be able to “fight the feeling” to join.

Glee Episodes without Paired Segments


More colors, more erratic.

While “Pilot,” “Wheels,” and “Journey” achieve narrative and stylistic continuity via paired segments and purposeful performances, a large number of Glee‘s episodes do not. As a result, the entire series can feel unbalanced, schizophrenic even. For example, the majority of the musical numbers in “Showmance,” “Acafellas,” “The Power of Madonna,” and “Funk” may individually charm and/or entertain the viewer, but because they are detached from one another, they fail to form a coherent whole (see table above). Admittedly, Sue Sylvester’s (Jane Lynch) copycat performance of Madonna’s “Vogue” is interesting and ambitious, but it has no corresponding number; hence, we do not fully understand what purpose it serves. The same goes for Schuester’s weird flirtation with Sue (“Tell Me Something Good”), Rachel’s cries over her love for Finn (“Take a Bow”), and Mercedes’s (Amber Riley) fiery reaction to Kurt’s (Chris Colfer) rejection of her (“Bust Your Windows”). Had Ryan Murphy et al created musical numbers through which Sue, Finn, and Kurt could reciprocate their feelings, rather than using snippets of dialogue or in some cases silence, these episodes would likely feel more complete. In this genre, reacting to such emotional performances via dialogue alone generally doesn’t cut it. ((Musical numbers in these “unpaired-segment” episodes are also unevenly timed. For example, “Showmance” features songs at 10m, 35m, 50m, and 55m; “Acafellas” at 17m, 22m, 40m, and 50m; and “The Power of Madonna” at 10m, 14m, 22m, 38m, 41m, 52m, 58m, and 62m. Moreover, unlike “On My Own,” “I Can’t Fight This Feeling,” and “To Sir with Love,” many songs in these episodes fail to serve a convincing purpose. For instance, Finn and Rachel’s “Borderline”/”Open Your Heart” duet takes the characters nowhere; at the end of the episode, neither character’s heart is truly opened to the other. Likewise, “Gold Digger” does little more than showcase Mr. Schuester’s rap/dance abilities.))

In interviews, Murphy claims that with Glee he is creating a “postmodern musical” in the vein of Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002) or Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001). But what he ostensibly fails to realize is that these two films — while perhaps modern in look, themes, and style (editing in particular) — still conform to the structure of classical musicals, operating almost exclusively through doubling or paired segments. ((Marsha Kinder, “Moulin Rouge,” Film Quarterly (55.3): 52-59; Karen Perlman, “Cutting Rhythms in Chicago and Cabaret,” Cineaste, (Spring 2009): 28-32.)) Furthermore, Murphy admits that he bases Glee‘s musical numbers on “stuff that I like and that I think fits the characters and moves the story along.” On its surface this is perhaps fine, but since musical narratives — like all genres, television shows included — necessitate structure, that “stuff that Murphy likes” needs to be framed more consistently within matched scenes and sequences. Perhaps then Glee wouldn’t feel so uneven.

Image Credits:

1. Hey kids, let’s put on a show (musical)!
2. Image by author.
3. Artie initially “dancing by himself” and then “proudly” with New Directions.
4. Image by author.

Please feel free to comment.




ABC’s The Middle: Redefining the Working-Class Male
Kelli Marshall / University of Toledo

Dinnertime on The Middle

The couch, fast food, and Dancing with the Stars: Dinnertime on ABC’s The Middle.

When it premiered in September 2009, ABC’s sitcom The Middle received overall positive ratings for its relatable situations, eccentric humor, and down-to-earth tone. More recently, critics have applauded not only Atticus Shaffer’s portrayal of 11-year-old Brick Heck, but also the show’s running commentary on our current dismal economy and skyrocketing unemployment rate, incidentally something for which the slightly more popular and hipper family sitcom Modern Family has recently been criticized. Still, some reviewers pan The Middle for its supposedly stock characters and clichéd sitcom situations. For example, one critic reports rather bluntly, “If you haven’t met these characters before, you don’t own a TV.” On the surface, the naysayers have a point. The family is normative (white, heterosexual, married, church-going); the parents are stressed; the kids are quirky; and the situational comedy often revolves around conventional family tiffs and misunderstandings. A closer look at The Middle, however, reveals that it is forging new territory, at least in terms of the representation of men in the working-class domestic sitcom.

According to the show’s adult stars, Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn, the title The Middle refers to the middle of the country (the family resides in the fictional town of Orson, Indiana), middle age, and middle class. These first two descriptors are correct, but the third is questionable. Even Flynn doubts this label in an on-camera interview with TV Guide when he says that middle income or middle class is something “these people would be lucky to claim.” Indeed, one look at the Heck family’s 1970s ranch-style home, modest blue sedan, fast-food eating habits, unflattering clothes, and occupations (manager of a quarry and a used-car saleswoman) suggests that, despite its title, The Middle is not a middle-class American sitcom. To be placed in that category the show would need to feature relatively affluent settings, prestigious professions, and well-groomed characters like those found in Father Knows Best, Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, Family Ties, The Cosby Show, and Modern Family. But it doesn’t; rather, The Middle’s homely mise-en-scene and grassroots-type themes resemble those of working-class sitcoms like The Honeymooners, The Flintstones, All in the Family, Roseanne, The Simpsons, King of Queens, and According to Jim. As a result, we should analyze it as such. ((Other references to the family’s financial situation: because of cutbacks, trash pickup in Orson, Indiana only takes place every two weeks (“The Scratch”). The family shops at Frugal Hoosier, Indiana’s best “expired food” store (“The Cheerleader”). Mike and Frankie can’t afford a new dryer (“The Cheerleader”). An early anniversary present consists of a trip to the carpet remnant store in French Lick and an overnight stay at the Route 33 Motor Lodge (“The Floating Anniversary”). Other references to the grassroots framework of the show: Mike competes in “the Birchwood 500,” a three-lap race around the block on a riding mower (“The Block Party”). Brick and Axl venture through corn mazes (“Thanksgiving”). Frankie and Mike play Cornhole at a car-dealership BBQ (“Worry Duty”); and a later episode features the Heck’s eldest son, Axl, with his friends swimming in the Hecks’s above-ground pool, a style typically associated with the working class (“Signals”).))

Richard Butsch has discovered that since its inception, the domestic American television situational comedy has relentlessly manipulated gender traits to suggest that the working class is inferior to the middle class. ((Butsch, Richard. “A Half-Century of Class and Gender in American TV Domestic Sitcoms.” Cercles 8 (2003): 16-34)) Working-class sitcoms, for example, traditionally feature incompetent, immature, and irrational husbands/fathers who have to be bailed out of inane (yet comical) situations by their capable, responsible, and logical wives (e.g., Alice and Ralph Kramden, Florida and James Evans, Marge and Homer Simpson). Middle-class family sitcoms, on the other hand, usually present both sexes as “a superb team […] intelligent, sensible, and mature,” and neither is devalued or revered in spite of the other (e.g., Carol and Mike Brady, Maggie and Jason Seaver, Claire and Heathcliff Huxtable). ((Ibid.))

The Kramdens

The Honeymooners’ Ralph Kramden, the original working-class buffoon.

Based on its blue-collar mise-en-scene and themes, ABC’s The Middle — and Mike Heck (Neil Flynn) in particular — should take on the stereotypical character traits of the working-class sitcom. For example, Mike should lack good sense and engage in emotional childish outbursts, Frankie Heck (Patricia Heaton) ought to make up for what Mike lacks in intellect and maturity, and the Heck children — Axl (Charlie McDermott), Sue (Eden Sher), and Brick (Atticus Shaffer) — should best their father mentally and otherwise. ((Ibid.)) But this is not the case. Instead, Mike helps his kids with their homework, coaches their spelling-bee competitions, and empathizes with their dating issues. As well, when Frankie has to work late on Thanksgiving and Christmas, he (along with other family members) prepares the turkey feast and shops for presents. Moreover, unlike his working-class sitcom predecessors, Mike responds wisely to delicate situations. For example, when Sue brings home her new boyfriend, whose effeminate mannerisms, interests, and clothes indicate he is gay, Mike suggests that he and wife hold off telling their daughter the truth: “She’ll figure it out eventually…or he will,” he counsels. ((One reason that Mike is able to assist his family in these ways is that for much of The Middle’s first season he is unemployed. Granted, his joblessness is not a result of the failing economy but the discovery of a dinosaur bone, which prompts a four-month shutdown at the quarry so paleontologists can unearth more prehistoric treasure (what a nod to the show’s working-class sitcom predecessor, The Flintstones!). Still, Mike’s situation reflects the U.S.’s current layoffs and high unemployment rates, particularly those in the Midwest. In fact, one episode, “The Interview,” is devoted almost exclusively to how difficult it is for Mike to find a temporary position.)) Finally, in contrast to other working-class males like Homer Simpson and Dan Conners (Roseanne’s John Goodman), neither Mike Heck’s children nor his wife ever appears more intelligent or capable than he. ((Looking at the examples above, it appears that Mike Heck is the model husband/father/Midwestern male. But that is not quite the case; he (as well as Frankie) has faults, several of them. For example, Mike (as well as his wife) forgets his daughter’s birthday, cannot operate a computer, fails to fix the family’s lawnmower without help, chooses Final Four tickets over a family funeral, and occasionally lets his children’s immaturity and bizarre behavior get the best of his emotions. Still, Mike’s shortcomings are balanced with the positive characteristics mentioned above, which is not usually case for working-class male sitcom characters.))

The Middle on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving dinner, served up by Mike and the rest of the Heck clan.

So why this shift? Why would The Middle move away from the buffoonish male stereotype that the working-class sitcom has perfected over half a century? Why would it bestow traits of the middle-class sitcom father — self-assured, admired, competent — on its blue-collar character? ((Butsch, Richard. “Five Decades and Three Hundred Sitcoms about Class and Gender.” Thinking Outside the Box: Television Genre Reader. Gary Edgerton and Brian Rose, eds. Lexington, U of Kentucky P, 2005, 111-135.)) Three words: the current economy.

The Middle is the only working-class situational comedy to premiere in 2009-2010, and it is the only non-animated working-class domestic American sitcom currently in production as well as the only one set in Middle America. ((Of course, there are non-animated working-class family sitcoms in syndication (e.g., Roseanne, According to Jim, Still Standing, Everybody Hates Chris), but The Middle is the only one currently in production.)) One might say, then, that for good or bad, in contemporary popular culture The Middle alone signifies familial life in the Midwest. Now, consider the current unemployment rate: nearly 15 million people, the majority of whom live in blue-collar Michigan (14% jobless) as well as other Midwestern states like Illinois (11.2%) and Ohio (10.9%). ((The Bureau of Labor Statistics (April 2010): Employment Situation and Regional and State Employment and Unemployment Summary.)) If we reconcile these two realities, we might conclude that it would be mighty irresponsible and potentially risky of ABC to depict its sole blue-collar husband/father (and family) in the negative manner of the traditional working-class sitcom. Indeed, having a bumbling, unthinking, incompetent man represent the multitude of out-of-work and undervalued Midwestern blue-collar males at this time, in this economy, in this job market would be unquestionably insensitive and out of touch. It’s just a shame that such a positive modification had to derive from such a dismal real-life situation.

Image Credits:

1. The couch, fast food, and Dancing with the Stars: Dinnertime on ABC’s The Middle.
2. The Honeymooners’ Ralph Kramden, the original working-class buffoon.
3. Thanksgiving dinner, served up by Mike and the rest of the Heck clan.

Please feel free to comment.




Privacy, Openness, and a New Persona: Why David Letterman’s Interoffice Escapades Took This Longtime Fan by Surprise
Kelli Marshall / University of Toledo


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David Letterman, embroiled in scandal.

I have been a fan of David Letterman for 20 years. In high school and college, I tuned in periodically to both Late Night with David Letterman (1982-1993, NBC) and the Late Show with David Letterman (1993-present, CBS). Now, thanks to TiVo, I watch the talk show religiously, having rarely missed a broadcast in the past decade. Suffice it to say, David Letterman and I have a history together. This is one reason, I think, that the comedian’s recent admission about his interoffice sexual exploits surprised me.

There are certainly other, less personal reasons that this story was recently plastered all over television shows, newspapers, and the Internet, for example, the bizarre extortion plot attached to Letterman’s sexual relationships, the concern about potential sexual harassment in the Late Show workplace, and, of course, the media’s undying (and unhealthy) affection for sex scandals. But perhaps there is another, more implicit explanation that Letterman’s confession shocked not only me, but many of his fans, the social networking world, and the media. In short, the on-air persona that Letterman has created for himself over the past nine years–a more compassionate and more exposed host/philanthropist/heart patient/husband/father–grossly conflicts with his apparent actions behind the set. It is this disconnect that I’d like to consider further.

For much of his television career, David Letterman has thrived on sarcasm, irreverence, and aloofness–characteristics that have set him apart from other late-night comedy hosts like the emotional and politically charged Jack Parr, the laid back Johnny Carson, and the inoffensive, jovial Jay Leno. As well, Letterman’s cool indifference and sardonic tone have yielded several uncomfortable (yet unforgettable) interviews with stars, politicians, writers, and musicians. For example, in 1988 an annoyed Letterman derided American Splendor writer Harvey Pekar, calling his comic book nothing but “a little Mickey Mouse magazine, a little newsletter.” And in 1994, Letterman introduced Madonna thusly: “Our first guest tonight is one of the biggest stars in the world. In the past 10 years, she has sold over 80 million albums, starred in countless films and slept with some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry.” Madonna reciprocated this tacky introduction by dropping the word fuck over a dozen times during her interview. ((The Museum of Broadcast Communications describes Letterman thusly: “a number of guests found him to be a mean-spirited interviewer and some celebrities claimed he was adolescent at best, highly offensive at worst.”))

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRSP5ZUmxP8[/youtube]

Reinforcing his detached persona during the 1980s and 1990s, Letterman only revealed tidbits of information about his personal life, and he kept himself out of the gossip spotlight. For instance, fans were aware that he was romantically involved with Merrill Markoe, a head writer and producer for Late Night. Also, it was widely known that Letterman was the victim of a schizophrenic stalker, Margaret Mary Ray, who repeatedly broke into the host’s Connecticut home, even once stealing his car. Additionally, the audience was familiar with Letterman’s inordinate number of speeding tickets and the cops who pulled him over. Finally in 1994, fans were introduced to Letterman’s mother, Dorothy, who served as his correspondent for the Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. But, that’s about it; so essentially, over nearly two decades as a public person, Letterman exposed a mere handful of specifics about his personal life.

However, in the year 2000, the self-described introvert began to share anecdotes about himself and his family. Moreover, he altered the content and tone of his interviews, especially those involving guests with children. This shift in nature ostensibly began on February 21, 2000, the evening Letterman returned to The Late Show after a month-long hiatus due to emergency quintuple bypass surgery. Forgoing his famous Top Ten list, the late-night host filled the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theatre with every member of the medical staff who cared for him during his stay at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. With typical humor, Letterman introduced the medical team: “Ladies and gentlemen, that woman at the end of the line gave me a bath!” Then, rather quickly all joking subsided, and a clearly choked-up Letterman offered these simple words to his audience: “Five weeks ago today, these men and women right here saved my life.”

Similarly, on November 4, 2003, Letterman shared with viewers another personal milestone, the birth of his son, Harry. Although some of his narrative was interspersed with characteristic jokes (e.g., he named his son Saddam), much of it was as frank and emotional as his bypass show. For example, he confided to his longtime sidekick, Paul Schaffer, that he “could never have imagined being a part of something that turned out this beautiful.” And before moving forward to his first guest, Letterman informed the audience of the rather touching story behind his son’s name: “My father passed away when he was 57. I’m 56 years old, and yesterday I had my first child. So I named him for my father. And his name is Harry Joseph Letterman. So God bless Dad, and God bless Harry.” Then, the new father proudly held up a picture of his one-day-old son.

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Letterman introduces audiences to his newborn son, Harry Joseph Letterman. (Nov. 2003)

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On his show, Letterman screens a personal home video of his son learning how to walk. (Jan 2005)

This calmer, personal, more introspective persona is reserved not only for the host’s pre-interview discussions about his son’s tree-house and soccer games, adventures on his Montana ranch, his (and Paul Shaffer’s) visits to Iraq, and his marriage to Regina Lasko, but also for his guests. For example, the host talks in depth with Julia Roberts about baby strollers and trips to McDonald’s (she’s never been, by the way). ((Other instances of Letterman’s newfound openness are as follows: On September 22, 2003, Letterman describes his encounter with a black bear which was wandering through the kitchen of his Montana home. This story gives way to several other narratives about Letterman’s adventures on his ranch (e.g., he was thrown from his horse, he survived another bear invasion). In December 2004, Letterman and Paul Schaffer spend Christmas in Iraq. Both talk openly about their memorable experience when they return to the air in January 2005.( This is apparently the fourth time the duo performed for the troops but the first time they both spoke at length about their travels.) In March 2005, Letterman humbly thanks on-air the police force of Chouteau, Montana, for arresting a man who was allegedly plotting to kidnap Letterman’s son and nanny. On April 26, 2007, Letterman, who rarely makes public appearances outside his own show, goes on Live with Regis and Kelly to welcome back Regis Philbin who had undergone his own bypass procedure. Similarly, in September 2007, Letterman surprises fans and makes another public appearance, this time on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Letterman’s interview, filmed in Madison Square Garden, served as Oprah’s fall premiere extravaganza. The television hosts discuss young Harry’s love of airplanes and bugs; and Letterman shares with Oprah’s audience several pictures of his son and family. In November of 2007, Letterman’s alma mater, Ball State University, names its new communications building after the talk-show host. Letterman attends the ceremony and gives a speech. When he returns to television, he not only speaks highly of his weekend experience, but also of his own college career at Ball State. In March 2009, Letterman shocks his audience with wedding news. Through a detailed story involving a pick-up truck, mounds of mud, and his curious child, Letterman informs viewers that in a small ceremony in Choteau, Montana, Letterman wed Regina Lasko, his girlfriend/partner of over twenty years and the mother of his child. Finally, since his son’s birth, Letterman has frequently shared stories, pictures, and videos of Harry. We know, for instance, that the father and son have built a tree house in their backyard, that Harry is a wise backseat driver, that Letterman attends soccer games and nursery school events, and that the two enjoy flying kites together.)) He also seeks parenting advice from Dr. Phil, Harry Connick, Jr., and other guests, explaining that he is having a hard time disciplining “Huff” (his nickname for Harry) and enforcing “the naughty chair.” And perhaps even more telling, the host who once deliberately offended guests with his disparaging, brutal humor now begs their forgiveness. Realizing that A-list celebrities like Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon, Oprah Winfrey, and Madonna have been absent from the Late Show for nearly a decade because of his former behavior, Letterman has sincerely apologized on-air to each.

As some of my colleagues have pointed out, it’s not all that shocking that a man in such a powerful position as David Letterman would engage in sexual relationships with his female co-workers and subsequently cheat on his significant other. In fact, in this day and age such behavior is frequent among male public figures who carry some authority e.g., religious leaders, politicians, movie stars, professional athletes. But in general, late-night talk-show hosts (and comedians as a whole) have avoided this sort of philandering. Sure, Johnny Carson married multiple times, but there was never any public evidence of extramarital affairs. Likewise, to my knowledge neither Steve Allen, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brian, Craig Ferguson, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, nor Stephen Colbert has been involved in a sex scandal. As a result, the uniqueness of Letterman’s situation certainly makes it surprising.

Moreover, comedians, satirists, and late-night talk-show hosts generally function as social observers and subversive truth-tellers. By drawing on contemporary culture and its goings-on, they are the ones who often deconstruct, expose, and challenge social expectations, rules, and hypocrisies; it’s not usually the other way around. ((For more on comedians and their social functions, see Shawn Chandler Bingham and Alexander A. Hernandez, “Laughing Matters: The Stand-Up Comedian as Social Observer, Teacher and Conduit of the Sociological Imagination, ” Teaching Sociology 37.4 (Oct. 2009): 335-52; and Murray S. Davis, What’s So Funny?: The Comic Conception of Culture and Society, Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.)) For example, most recently late-night comedians have riffed on the media’s fixation with swine flu, a senator who takes an Argentinean lover, and falsified footage from Fox News. A few years back, of course, jokes about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky as well as Dick Cheney’s hunting trip (in which he accidentally shot his friend in the face) dominated the late-night circuit, with Jon Stewart exclaiming about the latter, “Thank you, Jesus.” The public, therefore, expects David Letterman et al to mock others’ foibles, fabrications, and scandals–not to be the butt of such jokes themselves.

But when considering why Letterman’s affair shocked Late Show fans, the media, and the social networking world, we again cannot discount the host’s recently revised image. Most late-night hosts have maintained the same on- and/or offscreen persona over the years. For instance, Maher is consistently snarky, interruptive, liberal-minded, and makes no qualms about his agnosticism or love of marijuana. Similarly, Leno has always come across as decent, fair, unpretentious, and a lover of cars as well as a devoted husband to his wife of thirty years. As well, O’Brien continually portrays himself as goofy, awkward, unabashedly Irish Catholic, and slightly bawdy but mostly wacky (see his masturbating bear and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog). Letterman, however, has “softened,” Oprah Winfrey points out in a recent appearance on the Late Show (Dec. 2005). There is now “a light in [his] eyes…a sweetness” that wasn’t evident before, Winfrey maintains (clapping wildly, the audience agrees). Indeed, over the past decade, Letterman has constructed a different persona: he has put aside some of his old ways, opting instead for a more involved, sincere, personal style of comedy and interviewing. As a result, Letterman’s affair and admission of dishonesty do seem at odds with his progressive modification, which again, theoretically makes his announcement, especially for fans, a rather unanticipated one.

Image Credits:
1. David Letterman, embroiled in scandal.
2. Letterman introduces audiences to his newborn son, Harry Joseph Letterman.
3. On his show, Letterman screens a personal home video of his son learning how to walk.